Rev. Steve Stockman and Fr. Martin Magill were invited to speak on “reconciliation” at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in March. The two friends, who work for peace and reconciliation in Belfast and beyond, were uncompromising in their calls for Christians to be peacemakers. VOX Magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams caught up with Steve a few days after his speech to ask about the road to reconciliation. With his permission, we have also printed extracts from the speech (below).
“Twenty-five years ago, I refused to pray and read the Scriptures at my best friend’s wedding because it was in a Catholic church,” Steve shares, the regret and sadness evident in his voice. “These 25 years have seen a huge change in my life until the point where I could speak at the Ard Fheis last week. Why would I not read God’s word anywhere I was given the opportunity to do it?”
That journey has led Steve to a deep friendship with Fr. Martin Magill, who spoke alongside him at the Ard Fheis - a friendship that has destroyed stereotypes and opened Steve’s eyes to the potential of working together. “If God’s ministry is reconciling all things to himself, then one of my roles as a follower of Jesus is to be involved in the reconciliation of things that are broken.”
Over a cup of coffee, the two friends came up with the idea of the “Four Corners Festival,” inspiring people to work for peace as they meet one another and visit different parts of Belfast. Now in its third year, the festival features prayer events, discussions, music, and arts programmes designed to share, celebrate, and connect people from across the “four corners” of the city.
“It caught the imagination of a lot of people, including politicians, and may have led to our invitation to the Sinn Fein conference,” Steve explained.
“For most of my life, I’ve been a passive peacemaker. I always believed in peace, but I didn’t actively work for peace. God almost grabbed me by the throat and dragged me into peacemaking.
“The Scriptures are so clear - if you are a follower of Jesus - to love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, to be peacemakers... When we love our enemies, we demonstrate Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. On the island of Ireland, the opposite has been the case!”
The Troubles have been an obstacle to world mission, Steve explained, because people see Christians as part of the problem.
“We should have been the evidence of the power of Christ at work. We should have been the peacemakers. God gave me the courage to do what I needed to do. We are called to a ministry of reconciliation. Through us, grace has to become flesh and move into the neighbourhood! We are good at discussing, preaching, and quoting it, but we’re not good at living it!”
Extract from the speech to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis
Rev. Steve: This is the most interesting place I’ve ever preached! I am a Presbyterian from Ballymena. It is a long way from there to having a priest as one of your dearest friends and to being on a stage together at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis!
Wounds are deep. Pain is raw. Standing here, I can’t help but remember my Assistant Minister whose dad was shot dead when he was two, and my former intern who never met his dad, blown up in a bomb. Most of us are dealing with our own wounds and pain. We pray that all of us find healing.
Reconciliation is an uncomfortable conversation, but we believe it is a God-honouring conversation that we desperately need to have. Shaping the future through reconciliation will be messy… It will take time and courage, persistence and patience.
Fr. Martin: We stand here compelled by the words of Jesus: “If you find you have something against your brother or sister, leave your offering before the altar; go and be reconciled.”
We want to live out the challenge of those words. We want to play our part in helping people to be reconciled by overcoming the fear, distrust, and hatred that still remain from our troubled past. We have come a long way down our wounded road, but there is still a long way to go.
We know that reconciliation comes at a price: the price of scathing criticism and even threats, the pain of being judged and dismissed as having ulterior motives, but we must pay this price if we wish to transform our society.
Rev. Steve: How can transformation come? I believe the best word in all the world is “grace”. It is the gem in Christianity. Grace means unconditional love. God loved us and made the first move. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were about reconciling us to God and also to one other. Only by grace can relationships be restored. Grace needs to be more than a favourite word or idea. It needs to be put into action in a generosity of words used and actions done.
Hannah Nelson, the schoolgirl who out-speeched Barack Obama at the Waterfront, told us prophetically, “I don’t want to live in the past. I want to live for a future.”
Let us all live for all of our children’s future. Let us be uncompromising in our grace-driven willingness to compromise old entrenched positions to find a new way forward.
Fr. Martin: If we want to live for a future shaped by reconciliation, we can’t leave this to politicians or to one party alone. “Ní sinn féin amháin ach muidne uilig le chéile” (it is not ourselves alone but all of us together), or, in the words of an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
…the churches have an important role to play in the work of reconciliation. The words of Jesus in the Beatitudes encourage us: “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
So what does peacemaking and reconciliation look like? It certainly means listening, really listening, and seeking to understand the other. To want to be reconciled, each of us needs an open mind and an open heart.
Jesus talks about “going the extra mile”. For us in Northern Ireland, as we get to know one another, build new relationships, and rebuild old ones, we might finally reach a place on the road where we humanise instead of demonise one another.
Rev. Steve: While I was Chaplain at Queens, I took hundreds of students to South Africa to build houses on townships. When we asked South Africans the secret of their reconciliation, there was one recurring word - “Ubuntu”. It means, “without you, I cannot be fully me.” Nelson Mandela wanted more than a political peace. He was determined to build a societal peace.
When Jesus told us to love our neighbour and our enemy, they weren’t nice sentimental phrases but subversive commands to create justice, peace, and prosperity. Jesus knew that “without me, you cannot be fully you.”
As we continue down this wounded road, let the uncomfortable conversations continue. With Mandela’s ubuntu and Christ’s grace we believe we can make the change. Let’s do it together. Banachti!